My guest post for National Novel Writing Month

Writing on Amtrak between Seattle and Portland

Writing on Amtrak between Seattle and Portland

[Sharing this post I wrote for my friends at National Novel Writing Month, on "How to Maintain Your Writing Momentum." Visit the NaNoWriMo blog:]

In the cafeteria of a Seattle-to-Bremerton ferry, headphones on and laptop glowing, I'm surprised at how many others, like me, are drinking beer at 2 on a rainy Thursday afternoon. In Bremerton I find a coffee shop and write until it's time for the ferry back east, where I'm surrounded by beer-swilling navy men and women headed to that night's baseball game.

It's not pretty, but it gets the job done. By the time we reach Seattle, I've added 1,200 more words to my next book.

Lately, I've found that every word I write is the result of a hard-fought battle, a series of compromises. Do I take an afternoon off from work to write? Leave my wife and kids to find a rare couple of hours? Skip lunch to squeeze out a few more words? Yes I do.

Some writers find the monthlong commitment of NaNoWriMo to be their motivation, and I applaud them. But what if you don't reach that 50,000-word goal? Or what if you hit 50k only to realize you're at the halfway point? How do you keep the momentum going?

Over the years, that question of momentum, of finding the right time and place, has possessed me. Like many writers, I dream of the mythic Hemingway routine: wake at dawn, bang out a thousand words by noon, fill the afternoon with food or fun until it’s time for cocktails. For nearly ten years, over the course of three books, I managed to occasionally sustain a modest version of that cycle, sometimes achieving the pre-dawn flow state Hemingway described: “no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”

Then the reality of the writing life crashed in on me, and it was time once again for a day job. In the six years since I returned to 9-to-5 life (more like 8 to 6, actually), I've developed, by necessity, a collage style of writing, finding small in-between moments, carving out 20 to 60 minutes here and there, scrambling to find the headspace to focus and tune out the world.

I think of each 1,000-word session as the equivalent of a NaNoWriMo day. And if I can string together enough of those, well... that's the bones of a book.

While writing my next book, I not only did the obvious – rising at 5:30a when possible, working in every coffeeshop or bar within a mile radius of home or work – but once took a train from Seattle to Portland and back so I could write for 8 uninterrupted hours. I’ve rented hotel rooms for a night, created self-imposed weekend writing retreats (thank you AirBnB), and had many negotiations with my wife about how to escape for brief binge-writing sessions.

Sometimes I settle for micro sessions, scribbling 100 words onto a scrap of paper in the middle of the night, later picking up the thread on my iPhone, emailing myself another 200 words when inspiration strikes. Then I'll pour a drink and spend an hour after dinner on my iPad to stitch those scraps into the loose fabric of my book.

I often look to others for clues. I’ve interviewed dozens of writers over the years, and always ask about their routines, about when and where and how they write. From Michael Chabon I learned than one side of a vinyl LP can yield results. From Amor Towles I learned that a subway ride and a cellphone are useful tools. Elsewhere, I've learned that Jane Smiley finds her zone with the help of a bath or shower, Haruki Murakami starts at 4am (too early for me), while F. Scott Fitzgerald started at 5pm and wrote well past midnight (no thanks).

My ever-shifting methods veer closer to those of Maya Angelou, who for years would leave her home early in the morning and work in a small, spare hotel room, with just a bible, a dictionary, a bottle of sherry and a deck of cards for company. (For more of that kind of thing, read Mason Currey’s excellent Daily Rituals: How Artists Work or How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors.)

Some writers meditate, go for a drive, or drink a beer, which "dampens the butterflies, and releases my ego's grip on my subconscious," as Tony D'Souza once described it. But I've found that the key is to keep changing it up, keep experimenting, keep fighting for more words. As Anne Rice once put it, to sustain a career requires “the ability to change routines.” 

Multiple screens

Multiple screens